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BAJA CALIFORNIA: A STRETCH OF SAND BETWEEN TWO GLEAMING OCEANS

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Down here, wherever the development has run out, no vehicles can go. You must hire a panga or do some very tricky hiking to find it.

"Finisterra," it's called. Land's end.Not only is it the tip of a sandy, craggy finger of geography known as Baja California, it's also one end of Mexico.

But finisterra - or Los Cabos, as the Mexican government tourism people call this whole area - could also well be the end of the earth. Occasionaly a white boat cuts through this deep royal sea, carrying those in search of big game fish or another sigh-worthy sunset. Mostly, though, there's just ocean, sand, rock, wind and sky, all so voluminous that it seems there's nothing else left in the world.

Which suits those who find their way here just fine. The stark simplicity of a mountainous desert strip sandwiched between two gleaming oceans has fulfilled more than a few dreams. Sunbathers and yacht owners alike come looking for a place to just be, and that's what they find.

Here, a well-washed patch of sand called Lovers' Beach lies in the ancient asylum of El Arco, the most photographed sight in Baja, and possibly in all Mexico. Waves crash and tear unceasingly at jagged stone walls of tan and sepia and black. In partial coves, where the ocean is less turblent, sea lions lounge atop boulders, sometimes lifting up to look around and bark.

The cape here marks the point where the Sea of Cortez, also called the Gulf of California, meets the Pacific Ocean. These waters bring marlin anglers and windsurfers year round, and migrating gray whales from Alaska between December and March.

Both sky and water are startling in blue intensity at this peninsula conclusion, 1,059 miles south of Tijuana. Regarded as Mexico's last frontier, the area is occupied only by two quiet little towns.

And although it's still virgin ruggedness, Los Cabos has come a long way since 25 years ago when travelers arrived by tiny planes in a dry lakebed.

Los Cabos is the collective term for Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, sister settlements that have recently seemed on the verge of eruption but then suddenly suspended in that never-never land between quick overdevelopment and name familiarity.

The map says this is supposed to be Mexico. But it seems almost all cars bear blue-and-gold California license plates, and perfectly tanned and muscular bodies in tiny neon swimwear pound the beach volleyball court. The U.S. dollar is as widely accepted in Cabo San Lucas as is the Mexican peso, as is Visa, Master Card and American Express.

These are the only two towns on 90 miles of coastline. Between and around Los Cabos, the sun shines 360 days per year on clean white desert sand, mountain ranges, century plants and organ pipes and another 120 species of cactuses.

There's an easiness about Los Cabos, too. The population is comparatively sparse for a Mexican destination, and there's a higher quality of life, as employment isn't the problem here that it is in mainland Mexico. Heavy real estate activity, most involving U.S. interests, has provided locals with plenty of work.

The disparity in classes, however, is most visible in Cabo. North of downtown, on the edge of town, pigs and goats run around clean but primitive houses, and the area's one road is deeply potholed. Just south and west of downtown, the Pedregal is the area containing the elite's homes, spectacular dwellings covering hillsides overlooking the town and marina.

Life is to become even fuller as Los Cabos is the new baby of Fonatur, the same government entity responsible for Cancun and Ixtapa. Growth projections indicate that Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, 23 miles apart, will be connected by development in 20 years.

The discovery of Cabo as a big fishing find came with Americns who piloted private planes after World War II. They landed here, ogled the giant fish and exceptional beaches and returned home with stories of their discovery.

But long before the marlin fishermen, surfers, windsurfers, sun worshippers, yachting types and whale watchers came a string of explorers.

Cabo San Lucas was discovered in 1537 by Francisco de Ulloa, and Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo noted rounding Cabo San Lucas in 1542 on his way west. Pirates later hid among the rocks to surprise passing ships, and they robbed enough Spanish to prompt the building of a military presidio here in the early 17th century. A lack of fresh water prohibited more settlement for centuries.

Just 20 miles east, however, San Jose del Cabo was founded in 1730 as an important stopping point for schooners en route to trade in the Far East. Jesuit priests immediately estalished a mission here, the oldest in the region.

Though twin towns, they're full of contrasts: Cabo San Lucas is the larger, more commercially developed and more progressive, but it still has a fair number of sand-covered streets. San Jose del Cabo, the older and quieter half of the pair, has neat, paved avenues and a distinction between its orderly downtown and its pretty scattering of resort beach hotels.

In Cabo San Lucas, a town of about 10,000, the beach, 300-slip marina and harbor are dotted with pretty new hotels, restaurants and bars, bright shops and boutiques. Facing the downtown square, just a few blocks inland from the waterfront, a market with government-sponsored artisans offers good prices on crafts and jewelry.

There are pockets of Americanism in Cabo already: the Big Easy is a barbecue rib joint run by former Texans; Cabo Deli makes real deli sandwiches and sells real French wine; Lagartija Literata (Literary Lizard) has a multi-national inventory of books, magazines and newspapers; and there's a Benetton anchoring one corner.

San Jose del Cabo, with about 15,000 residents, sits at the bottom of a tropical river valley and has a lush, palm-fringed lagoon with more than 200 species of birds and wildlife. You can rent canoes and paddleboats at the lagoon or explore a nearby fossil bed with dinosaur tracks.

San Jose, as it's commonly called, is the cape's largest settlement. Rather a storybook sort of place, it's characterized by clean, neat streets, potted bougainvillea and poinsettias, a pleasant Spanish-style plaza and a two-towered pioneer church with muraled interior walls.

Downtown San Jose sits on a hill about a mile inland from the ocean, about 12 miles south of the international airport. The walk down shady, manicured Boulevard Antonio Mijares passes horses and cows, and you can hear bird cries from the lagoon beyond. At boulevard's end, hotels and resorts sit past the large sand dunes, in front of the roaring surf. In San Jose and just east of town, stylish condos are in rapid development.

Exploring Los Cabos and the surrounding area is advisable, and the best car rental deals earlier this year were about $150 for three days.

The best vistas Baja California Sur can offer are along Highway 19, the route to La Paz via Todos Santos. From Cabo, drive a half-hour or so, then turn around. The view of the Pacific as the highay descends into the desert is simply breathtaking.

Surf lovers will never want to leave Baja's southern coast, a long flattish area of deserted beaches interspersed with rocky areas. A few coves provide relief from crashing, pounding surf, and the water is a stunning range of blue.

Because historic and cultural sites are practically non-existent, people look for other diversions - if not water sports, then shopping, eating and drinking.

Want to see what the fishermen caught? Go down to the marina at about 3 p.m. and wait for returning boats: blue triangular flags mean billfish were caught, and red triangular flags mean the fish were released. Then there's the hoisting of fish for weighing and photographing before they're hauled off to the trophy-makers.

Deep sea fishing is the largest draw here, in large fishing boats or smaller speedboats, and the Pisces Fleet, whose office faces the Cabo harbor, is the best-known and largest.

The Trinidad is a trimaran operating from the Cabo marina. Daily excursions ($7) take in the famous arch, the seal colony and a two-hour swim at Lovers Beach. Sunset sails ($15), with plenty of margaritas and cold beer, provide shutterbugs with moody lighting in which to shoot El Arco.

Baja Sports in Cabo rents bicycles, snorkeling gear and surfboards, and arranges diving packages and horseback rides. A small dive shop on Palmilla Beach, just west of San Jose, rents snorkel and dive equipment.

Just west of Palmilla, near the Brisa del Mar trailer park, Punta Mirador attracts experienced surfers who rank the waves here as good as those in Hawaii. Waves are up to five feet, and there are four different breaks.

Golfers are offered a pretty course in San Jose. Earlier this year, greens fees were up to $18 and cart rentals were $14.

Los Cabos shopping isn't up to par with most Mexican destinations, but there are some good finds. Shopping in San Jose is a distinct pleasure, the shops are very clean and quiet and the shopkeepers are exceptionally restrained. Blue glassware is predominant and is usually priced at $2 per piece. Stores sell better T-shirts with contemporary designs at $8-$12, a little high by most Mexican standards.

One of Mexico's distinct pleasures is its culinary bounty, and Los Cabos doesn't disappoint.

For gourmet or neo-Mexican, try Cilantro's on the beach in Cabo, or the Hotel Finisterra's Blue Marlin. The Finisterr's Whale Watcher Bar is by far the best place to see the sunset and migrating whales.

La Golondrina is a graceful, restored Spainish colonial-style home in Cabo, the only structure in town to survive the 1906 flood. The margaritas are serious and the fish entrees are creatively prepared.

Senior Sushi and the Gigglin' Marlin are wild watering holes with forgettable food.

For something different, try DaGiorgio, on a hill five miles west of San Jose. It's tricky to find at night, but the Italian dinners and gracious ambiance are well worth the effort.